Learning a language phrase by phrase

Everyone learning a language does it a little differently. We all have our own schedules, our own goals, and we tackle vocabulary and grammar in individual ways.

But one thing is certain, we can’t learn a language in one fell swoop. We need to build our new language skills step by step.

The key here is “build.” As you learn and practice a language, you always do so in the context of your own knowledge and the skills that you have.

Motivation is the driver. The stronger your motivation, the farther you will get on your language journey.

Make a Plan You Can Stay With

A 10-minute focused practice, done every day is a great start. Put your practice time in your agenda, and stick to it. If you learn and practice with focus and intensity, short sessions can be very productive.

Choose a program that has audio and text, and allows you to go back and repeat lessons as many times as you want. Lots of repetition, especially early on, is essential.

Unless you have a different goal, plan to work on all four language skills: listening comprehension, reading, speaking, and writing. Each of those skills has to be learned separately but it soon becomes apparent that they boost each other.

Choose a way to keep track of your learning. Use either a notebook or an online app. and record what you did, for example: lesson on greetings, focused on pronunciation. In addition, write down what went well, such as: my intonation is improving, or: finally figured out how to pronounce French “u”.

Think about ways to reward yourself for small achievements.

Phrases Are Ready-Made Chunks

When you learn a language, you can’t avoid memorizing individual words. But for communicating in your target language individual words are not enough. You need to be able to share interests, opinions, feelings, etc.

“Chunking” is a learning strategy that works very well for language learning. By learning words as part of a useful phrase (cluster of meaning/”chunk”), you have ready-made tools for communication.

Here’s where repetition and recall becomes important. You need to hear and say such phrases many times over the next days, even weeks. Don’t analyze them too much. Just let them become automatic.

Repetition means “listen and repeat”, making sure that you have the correct meaning and a good pronunciation.

Recall means producing a phrase 5 minutes later, the next day, then the next week, etc., from a cue in your native language. Systematic recall, in the form of a “spaced repetition system”, is described well in Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”.

As you continue learning new phrases, you’ll notice familiar words showing up in different contexts. Sometimes this can help you figure out what a new sentence means. Or, it can teach you other meanings of the same word.

To help internalize useful phrases, start using them – in emails and text messages, in conversations, or in the context of a language journal.

Grammar Comes in Patterns

When we learn another language, we are also learning how the language works. We begin to understand the difference between a question and a request, or the difference between a past and a future action.

Each language has its distinctive grammar items and some of them are important for avoiding misunderstandings.

As you’re learning a language, though, you’ll make plenty of mistakes, and that’s okay. Your use of grammar – verb endings, word order, etc. – has a way of improving over time. That is if you stick with learning words in the context of meaningful phrases and sentences.

Why does your grammar tend to get better if you practice a language attentively? Because the grammar of a language consists of recurrent patterns.

We’ve all mastered the patterns of our native language, whether we think about them or not. With enough exposure to another language, we can start noticing and using its grammar patterns too.

My favorite example is the French phrase: “j’aimerais …” (I would like). This you can use in many situation to politely ask for something: “J’aimerais un verre de vin/un kilo de pommes.” (I’d like a glass of wine/a kilo of apples.) With the same phrase you can also talk about what you’d like to do: “J’aimerais aller en ville.” (I’d like to go downtown.) And so on.

You don’t really need to analyze that “aimerais” is a conditional form. You understand that it’s the equivalent  of “would like”.

The more you hear and see a language (listen and read), the better you’ll get at noticing and internalizing its grammar patterns.

Writing down some of these patterns and/or using them in conversations will help make them automatic.

Jumpstart Your Pronunciation

Having a good pronunciation builds confidence. If you know how to pronounce your target language, you can even read what you need to say out of a phrase book and be understood.

So practice right from the start. Take eight to ten words, phrases, or short sentences. For each, play the audio several times.

Focus on the sounds. Every language has its typical sounds. Try to notice what sound combinations are characteristic for your target language.

Listen and repeat. Imitate the pronunciation of the native speaker, and do it again and again for each word, phrase, or sentence.

When you pronounce sounds that are not in your native language, you’re engaging other muscles than you’re used to. It takes time to learn how to use those.

If you repeat this kind of focused pronunciation practice, let’s say once or twice a week, you’ll soon notice improvement.

Later when you’re ready, start recording yourself and play back your voice. If you want to become fluent, you’ll have to get used to hearing yourself speak in your target language.

Speaking fluently doesn’t mean that you won’t have an accent. If you’re learning your new language as an adult, losing your accent completely will be quite difficult. Just ask Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Don’t Stop There

The fun is just beginning. A good image for learning a language is the inverted pyramid. You keep building on what you know, and with it your knowledge expands.

Push yourself. Add more listening to your language practice. It can be songs you hear many times over, easy story podcasts, slow news, films with subtitles.

Add reading with short texts, simple stories, online news articles.

Schedule a few online conversation lessons. Join a language group in your neighborhood, or online.

Learning a language is a wonderful journey that will open doors and create new opportunities. It’s also a tool for a richer personal life.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

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